Imagine what happens when a determined man seeking forgiveness embarks on an impossible journey to win his love back and in the process touches the lives of every person he encounters and inspires an entire nation. In acclaimed director Karan Johar’s new film, My Name Is Khan, Bollywood superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol inhabit the most challenging roles of their careers.
Rizvan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) is an honorable Muslim man from India, living with Asperger’s Syndrome, who falls unconditionally for the beautiful Mandira (Kajol), a Hindu single mother living out her version of the global dream of success. Their storybook romance is told against the backdrop of a great American city until a series of life-changing events changes everything. When an unspeakable act of cowardice tears their family apart, Khan selflessly embarks on a powerful journey through a contemporary America that is as complex as the terrain of the human heart. More after the jump:
We sat down this week with Karan Johar to talk about his new film. He told us about the important message he hopes to convey on a global level, the romantic narrative thread he used to humanize some of the film’s most potent political themes, and what he thinks it will take for Bollywood to make it big in America. He also updated us on his upcoming projects including an animated feature called Koochie Koochie Hota Hai and the romantic comedy, I Hate Love Stories.
KJ: It was a conscious decision that I took as a filmmaker to address this topic because I felt very strongly that there is a certain kind of unawareness of the religion and a certain kind of subjugation and generalization of the religion in the world. I’m not of the religion but I’m educated enough to understand there is a misconception about it globally. We thought to address it in an emotional, effective and dramatic manner would be a great way of communicating and passing a message on a global level on, which is what really my endeavor was as a filmmaker. The entire idea started off with us correcting the world’s misconceptions about Islam. We hope that this one tiny step takes us many, many miles ahead in addressing this misconception.
Q: Can you talk about the cast and how Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol became involved?
KJ: Shah Rukh and Kajol are people I’ve done two films with. They have a great kind of screen history together. They’re possibly called a legendary love couple in India. They’ve done five very big successes before this. So them coming together with me was an emotional and a professional decision. It’s emotional because I’ve done two films with them already and we have a great working relationship with each other. It’s professional because they both loved the script and decided to go ahead and be a part of this project.
Q: You’ve worked before with Shibani Bathija who wrote the screenplay for this. How would you describe your collaborative process?
KJ: We did a fair amount of research and we worked on the structure first and then she went on to write it. Of course, it was always a process in tandem with each other. But it will always remain her baby. It was her story, her screenplay. I remain hopefully an efficient executor of her work.
Q: Did you consult with experts on Asperger’s Syndrome to help Shah Rukh portray his character accurately?
KJ: We met a couple in London, Chris and Gisela (Slater-Walker), who had written a book called “An Asperger Marriage.” I would say Chris became our big inspiration to create Rizvan Khan, the protagonist of My Name Is Khan. Also, we did a fair amount of research with the International Asperger Societies in London, New York, Los Angeles and India. We created a whole research base for us to give to Shah Rukh who then went through the research, met the people himself, met some people with the condition in India and created Rizvan out of all the research that he had.
Q: At its core, this is a love story between two people who have a unique way of seeing the world. What sets it apart is the landscape on which the story unfolds. Did you set out to use the romantic narrative thread to humanize some of the potent political themes and give the story a more universal appeal?
KJ: I think predominantly, like you rightfully said, it was a love story. But, within the love story, we had so much we needed to say. We needed to form the emotional base for it to be connective which is why we chose the path of the love story between Rizvan and Mandira. It was because of love that he embarks on this impossible journey and eventually it’s really to win his love back. That was to give it the base, the crust. Everything else was like the various layers on top of the strong crust.
Q: It’s refreshing to see a view of the U.S. from an outside perspective. Can you talk about the tone and the visual style of the film and what you did to underscore Khan’s personal journey across America?
KJ: It was always meant to be a journey across various topographies of America. We shot various parts of the film in and around Los Angeles, San Francisco, and even down to Mexico. The first half was always meant to be bright and colorful and the second half was meant to be more rustic and brown. I, in tandem with the DP of the film, Ravi K. Chandran, worked out the color palette of the film and what we wanted to visualize it as. Of course, as outsiders of the country, we tried our level best to get as many facts and figures right about the film. But, it will always remain an outside perspective.
Q: Would you say that Khan’s struggle with Asperger’s Syndrome and the cultural challenges that he and Mandira faced daily in American society mirror in some ways the complex dynamics and the difficult relationship between Islam and the Western world?
KJ: Yes, in a sense it does. In fact, what we show on a micro level is what the world goes through on a macro level. We, of course, internalize the film which is about a family and what they go through. But, the beats of what they go through within a country like America is what so many people have been through or are going through — that kind of subjugation, racial slaughtering. It’s in our research that came out – it’s interesting, we did a fair amount of research with Muslim organizations based even on the West Coast like IMPAC and CARE. They said that really it was not the larger incidents that bothered people. It wasn’t the slap on the face or the burning of a car or more external projections of violence that bothered people. It was a silent look at a tube station. It was the turn around or look at a food market. It was the little extra bit of a stare at a restaurant. It was those little moments that bothered people the most, that made them feel like complete outsiders of the system. So, what we tried to show on a tiny level mirrors the way that society and the world thinks on a certain level of the religion and the people. And, no matter how involved we think we are, in the recesses of our head space, we have this thought. That is actually something that we wanted to address through our celluloid endeavor.
Q: How do you think we can improve the relationship between Islam and the Western world in a positive way for the future?
KJ: The important thing is not to treat it like a force, like something we need to tackle, something we need to deal with. Just the way we accept a religion. The fact that there’s a Baha’i culture, there’s Buddhism, there’s Christianity, there’s Hinduism, there’s Islam. Why give it that prominence? Why give it that kind of focus? You’re only going to give it focus because you feel there’s something wrong with it. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a beautiful religion that professes so many beautiful things, but it’s been overcast by misperception, by unawareness, by people guiding it all wrong, and I think that’s what’s happened. My hope and desire is that it’s treated like any other religion in the world with the same amount of indifference if possible.
Q: Can you talk about your future projects? What do you have coming up next?
KJ: We’re a production firm called Dharma Productions. We have an “x” amount of films releasing. With Sony Pictures we have the official adaptation of Stepmom which is tentatively titled Love You Maa but that may not be the final title. We have an animation film coming out. We have another little rom com releasing in July. So we have a plethora of films coming out this year and next year.
Q: Can you tell me about the animated film?
KJ: It’s called Koochie Koochie Hota Hai. It’s an adaptation of a film that I started my career with called Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) which means “something happens in the heart.” Koochie Koochie Hota Hai is a dog and cat version of that film.
Q: What’s the name of the romantic comedy and what’s it about?
KJ: It’s called I Hate Love Stories. It’s about a man who hates love stories. It’s a love/hate Indian love story. Ironically, everything that happens, all the clichés of love stories happen to him, which is why he can’t handle it because he can’t believe he’s going through the same [things]. He eventually does fall in love and goes through all the running to the airport in the end and all the kind of clichés of love stories that we see in Hollywood and Bollywood. They all happen to him. So, it’s a strange look at a love story.
Q: What do you think it will take for a Bollywood movie to make it big in America?
KJ: I don’t know. I don’t think you can ever please all audiences. Bollywood is very specific. A film like My Name is Khan can take a baby step in terms of reaching out to more eyeballs than usual. But I don’t know if there will ever be a film that will appeal to both markets because they’re so diverse in their cultures. So I think the endeavor is to just make your film and then hope it travels as much as it can.
Q: What would you like an audience to take from this film?
KJ: Just the power of humanity, this power of goodness that we seem to have forgotten, because this truly is the story of a super hero with just one power: humanity. And that’s all. It doesn’t matter whether you take Islam from it or you take the perception of religion from it or the subjugation of a community from it. I think if you just go back home feeling that there is a certain power in humanity and goodness that needs to play itself out in our day to day existence, then I think we will have achieved something as filmmakers.
Q: Can you talk about the security on Bollywood films? I’ve heard they’re very careful not to screen the films until they’re close to release. Is that true?
KJ: Yes, we’re just non-trustworthy as people. (Laughs) It’s ridiculous, I know. We never show our films until the day before and I think it’s really sad because sometimes it restricts our possibilities of a larger global release. I mean, worldwide journalists get really angry because they can’t give it the kind of space in publications [it deserves]. There’s a gentleman I know at The Times in the U.K. who says that he can never give it that big solid space because he’s only shown the film the day before. But hopefully, in time, we will show our films a lot earlier. We should actually. It’s something that never happens. It’s not security. I think it just comes from a lack of trust. We just don’t want the word to get out before the release.
My Name is Khan opens in theaters on May 7th.